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Chi Kraeng villagers’ case commences

Siem Reap province
SIEM Reap provincial court opened a trial yesterday against nine villagers from Chi Kraeng commune who are accused of attempting to kill armed police officers during a tense standoff last year.

Court officials barred journalists from entering the courtroom yesterday. Deputy court prosecutor Sok Keo Bandith declined to outline the case at length, but he said all nine accused men pleaded not guilty to the charge, which carries a possible sentence of between 10 and 20 years.

The case is part of a long-running land dispute between villagers in Chi Kraeng and neighbouring Anlong Samnor commune. Tensions bubbled over in March 2009, when military police opened fire on Chi Kraeng villagers attempting to harvest rice on disputed land, injuring four. No charges have been laid against any of the officers. But the court charged the nine villagers after military police accused them of first threatening officers with machetes.

Lawyer Ham Sunrith, who works with the rights group Licadho, questioned why his clients were on trial instead of the police officers involved in the dispute.

“Why did violence erupt and the perpetrators were not charged?” he said.

Ham Sunrith said the court should have sympathy for the accused men, whose families have suffered while they have been incarcerated.
“I think the charges should be reduced because it happened due to a land dispute,” he said.

Security was tight around the courthouse. Around 30 military police officers were stationed around the building, keeping an eye on more than 100 villagers gathered outside. Sok Keo Bandith said the measures were necessary to ensure order. He also said the courtroom was not open to the public because it was too small.

After four hours, officials announced that the trial would continue August 2.

Ham Sunrith said yesterday’s hearing focused on testimony from the accused, and that the court must still hear from witnesses.

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